Petition calls for removal of CEO over disparaging remarks about women engineers

WomENG, an organisation for women engineers, is calling for the removal of Manglin Pillay as the CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) over an article he wrote questioning the place of women in the industry.

Pillay’s removal will set an example and send a message to the engineering industry that discrimination of any type will not be tolerated, according to the petition, which is online at Gopetition.  

WomENG has said it intended to hand over the petition to SAICE before it holds an emergency board meeting on Wednesday. The meeting will focus on Pillay’s column titled "Out on a rib", which featured in the July issue of the industry body magazine. SAICE, which has distanced itself from the article, has said it would comment after the meeting. 

In the column, Pillay quoted from a study by Leeds Beckett's School of Social Sciences and the University of Missouri that women in gender-equal societies choose care or people-orientated careers while men tend to choose careers that orient them to things and mechanics.

Pillay said women prefer not to occupy high-profile executive posts because they would rather have "the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises like family and raising children than to be at the beck and call of shareholders".

WomENG's executive board, in a statement, said it was "deeply outraged" by Pillay's comments, and has called for the SAICE CEO to step down.  

"WomENG is deeply outraged with the latest edition of the SAICE Magazine and its comments by CEO Manglin Pillay. We find his comments derogatory, condescending and patronising. His arguments are in no way based on fact or reflective of current gender research on women and girls in STEM.

"Mr Pillay, despite his claims, is in no way a friend of women in engineering. WomENG has worked tirelessly over the past 12 years to understand challenges and bottlenecks for girls and women in STEM. It is these grossly disrespectful and misogynistic comments that Mr Pillay openly shares, using his leadership platform as CEO of SAICE, that remains one of the key reasons why women leave our profession.

"To discount the contribution women have made to this sector is a grave injustice and to reduce us only to caregivers is a travesty," the petition reads. 

Co-founder of WomENG Hema Vallabh told Fin24 that the aim of the petition is to give people a voice. She said whether one person or 6 000 sign the petition, it would still have meaning. By 17:30 on Tuesday the petition had received 730 signatures. 

Pillay's column has also been criticised by Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane.

'No understanding' 

Electrical engineer, and PhD candidate Kamentha Pillay wrote an open letter to Pillay on her blog, The STEM Mom following his article, reacting to some of the points Pillay made.

On Pillay’s possible removal, Kamentha said at first she was not sure if that was the best route to take. But given the society we live in now, movie directors are being fired for Twitter rants they had 10 years ago. She was referring to US director of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn

"I think people in a position of power need to understand that they can’t say things with no understanding of what they are saying. Technology is seamlessly integrated into our lives now to the point where you can’t claim ignorance. You can’t do it, not in this day and age."

Removing Pillay would only be the first step, next would require training of people in organisations like SAICE to understand why such behavior is wrong. "I think there are men out there who do not genuinely understand that they are being condescending."

Kamentha added that men may never be fully able to understand the challenges women have to face. "Until a man has been in a place where he has been catcalled and harassed – until he has been through that I don’t think he will ever fully understand. You can say you understand but never truly experience the pain and emotion women have to endure."

Education is the starting point and then other techniques must be developed to find solutions, she said.

* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER